Myanmar's pirated pop: Burmese copy-songs dominate market

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Myanmar's version of Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On - and other copysongs

One of Myanmar's most famous popstars Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein stands at the bow of a ship, her arms aloft.

She's belting out one of pop culture's most unforgettable, some would say unforgiveable melodies. But this is a bit different. And it's not just that the ship is a few sizes smaller than the Titanic.

"Seeing, hearing, all your feelings will be touched deeply by my presence," she warbles in Burmese.

This is no longer Celine Dion's classic My Heart Will Go On but the local standard Achit Myar Lat Saung, which means "My love is a present to you."

It's one of Phyu Phyu's extensive repertoire of copy-songs, a phenomenon that has come to dominate the Burmese music industry.

The formula is simple. Take an international hit, add some fresh lyrics and then release to an eager public.

Presented with a tried and tested, toe-tapping tune the fans lap it up, often having no idea that the music was written many miles away and that the original composer is getting nothing.

"When I started my career, I had no idea that we were stealing the songs," Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein tells me.

"We were never taught in our school curriculum any rights. Intellectual property rights, copyright, human rights we've never heard about all that."

Burmese 'copy songs'

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Myanmar pop star Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein is now recording original songs, rather than copies

After more than 10 years in the business, Phyu Phyu says she's now seen the light and is trying to move away from the copies that made her name.

Her latest album, Main Kalay Tayauk Athe Kwe Nayte (A Girl with a Broken Heart), was a sign of intent, with all the songs original.

"My new album has made new hits," she says ruefully. "But all the songs that they (the fans) are more attracted to are the copy-songs.

"I still have to sing the copy-songs (at concerts) because they won't let me get off the stage without singing those songs."

In most countries, if you want to use someone else's tune, you pay them royalties, but under Burmese law Phyu Phyu and her fellow artists are doing nothing wrong.

The only legislation that relates to intellectual property is an archaic British law from 1914.

It's written more with literature rather than music in mind, and only protects works that were published first in Myanmar.

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Myint Moe Aung has written more than 300 copy-songs over the last 20 years

That means tunes written abroad are fair game for the likes of Myint Moe Aung. We watch as he sits in his small apartment, hunched over a smartphone.

He's analysing a video of the American star John Legend singing his hit All of Me. Every few seconds, he presses pause and scribbles something on his notepad. A new copy-song is taking shape.

The working title for this Burmese version is "I'm worn out by loving you" and it's going to be sung by one of the newest stars, Irine Zin Mar Myint. We're told it's going to be a tweak rather than a full re-write.

"Sometimes we just translate and make a few minor alterations," he says. "For example, when a song talks about the winter and the seasons, that makes no sense here - as it's always hot!"

Mr Myint has written more than 300 copy-songs over the last 20 years and tells me that role of the lyricist has evolved alongside Myanmar's political landscape.

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Many Burmese artists rely heavily on "copy-songs"

One of his most popular re-workings is the Scorpions' Wind of Change, which celebrates the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Under the heavy censorship of the military regime in the 1990s, both the contents and that title were unacceptable, so it was released with new words as Wild Winds.

"Everyone was aware of what it really meant," he says with a smile.

"When I first started writing in 1992, most of our lyrics were trying to subtly reflect the political situation," he says. "Now people aren't so into that, so we write mostly about love."

For each song he writes, Myint gets about $400 (£255) which he says helps him work with a clear conscience.

"As a Buddhist, I do feel bad about taking other people's music without asking," he says. "But the money we make isn't much. So in a way, we are doing this to promote western music."

Academic analysis

The copy-song has even attracted the attention of academics who have interpreted its pre-eminence as a sign of an inferiority complex in Burmese popular culture.

Writing in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Anthropology, Dr Jane Ferguson argues that it comes from Myanmar having a "'receiving... rather than a 'sending' culture".

Dr Ferguson ascribes the rise of the copy-song in the 1960s in part to the realisation by the Burmese authorities that this prevented catchy rock and roll tunes reaching the public.

Instead of allowing the records of Elvis Presley and the Beatles to be imported, local artists were given tacit approval to rework their tunes for a Burmese audience.

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Yay Aye from the Myanmar Music Association says they are struggling to contain high levels of piracy

At the dusty headquarters of the Myanmar Music Association, they're fed up with the copy-songs but in despair about the levels of piracy.

Few functioning Burmese record labels are still in business, leaving almost all the the artists to produce and publish their own material.

Typically they now sell just a handful of legal albums at about $2 (£1.30) a time before the pirates take over, flogging copied CDs for as little as $0.30 on street corners. The only way musicians can make money is to play concerts.

In theory there is a law from 1996 that outlaws piracy. It stipulates that you could be sentenced to up to three years in prison or fined up to $100. But it's rarely enforced.

Fed up with the lack of official interest in combating piracy, the Music Association has employed its own private investigators and say it has identified more than 1000 cases.

"Fewer than 10 resulted in jail terms," Yay Aye says. "The small fine means the pirates are just not afraid."

There is supposed to be new legislation on it's way, both to tackle piracy and to bring Myanmar in line with international standards on intellectual property.

But only the musicians seem to want to push it forward. The bill is currently on its 11th draft and many are now wondering when, or even if, it will make it to parliament.

"They don't want to do it," artist Thxa Soe tells me with a shrug. He's become famous mixing traditional Burmese songs with modern electronic music and is also a leading member of the Myanmar Music Association.

"My last album sold about 20,000 copies legally - the pirates sold millions," he says. "It's big money and the government doesn't want to take them on."

Overwhelmed by piracy and crowded out by the copies, the few purists left in Myanmar's music scene are struggling to be heard.